The 21st Century Essay

The college essay serves as a symptom of the current educational system based on grades and is currently the most prominent tool of the English discipline. While present in every major to some degree, no other program leans so heavily on the style of a bloated and ungainly paper quite like most colleges’ English departments.

Save for a few try-hards, a typical college student could probably tell you the generic outline for nearly every paper they’ve ever turned in within a couple degrees of variation. An introduction where they describe the dreck they’re turning in, three to four sections (maybe more, if the paper is long) filled with facts or opinions to support their thesis statement, and a conclusion that tries to find some sort of consensus of the information they’ve spewed. And for what? Probably a pretty subjective grade that could vary widely based on the professor or teaching assistant who gets to read the train wreck they’re presented with.

Pictured above: A stock photo from Wikipedia of where a lot of the best essays come from.

It makes sense for the essay to exist within the current collegiate system, though — there isn’t a real streamlined practice for grading these essays, only for the citations and general page requirements, so why change the practice? The main problem I see with these essays as a student are the lack of practical use most of these essays in a business environment. Sure, I could write 15 pages about the effects Shakespeare’s Hamlet has on the socio-economic environment in an analysis of gender theory in the 17th century, but unless I’m planning on being a teacher or professor myself there’s a very good chance that essay will be out of my mind the second I’ve turned it in to the professor.

So how do we fix this? We change the idea of a college essay to fit the Internet Age. Let’s put them online, and teach English students how to work in a digital format.

The English Major and the Job

It’s an uncomfortable stereotype for English majors to have to think about, but the job market really isn’t all that nice to those who don’t get STEM degrees. Journalism just doesn’t pay as well as it used to, and a recent guide by Monster Worldwide about potential jobs for English majors shows a distinct trend towards communication jobs in management, marketing, or human resources. The closest you can get to a “real” English job, based on that article, seems to be the often-overlooked technical writing position.

Based on the courses I’ve taken, the fear of this job market does seem to come a bit from the aptitude testing to get a good grade in a class comes from the traditional college essay. Unless you’ve somehow stumbled into a social media class, there’s a very good chance the only one reading your essay will be your professor, so writing with them in mind is the best choice for the best grade. While this can serve as practice writing towards a certain audience, this head-down approach to readership can definitely limit the creativity and growth you can experience getting your work torn apart by people you don’t know.

Traditional brick-and-mortar journalism used to be a great place for English majors to end up; not only did it test your skills as a writer, it tested your ability to communicate with people as a whole and how well you could persuade someone with just your words. The dawning of the Internet and the new perception of news and reporting as a “free” commodity has absolutely destroyed journalism as a job market, however. Journalism.org has shown decreasing growth in jobs in journalism as a whole since 2000, as mentioned in their study State of the News Media 2016. If you want proof, try getting onto Forbes with your ad blocking software. (Here’s a pro tip: you can’t.) These guys need money, and they need it yesterday.

Your new source for news, ads, and even English majors! (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So when I’m trying to argue that students need their works publicly exposed, why am I talking about the decline of journalism as a career? Because it relates to the new kid on the block: social media. Those jobs aren’t dead, they’ve just shifted in a big way. Instead of writing an exposé, you’re writing a Tweet for a company.

Even if you’re not doing that, you’re writing some copy for a company. Or writing a user manual. Or writing a business proposal to present at a major board meeting. Basically, if you use your English degree to get a job writing English, you’ll definitely be writing something: but not just for one person.

And that’s where my proposal comes in.

Let’s Put Essays Online — And Make Them Fun!

If you’re not my professor for this class, I assume you’ve figured it out already—this isn’t an article that I’m writing for my own pleasure. It’s for a class that’s a requirement for my English degree at Clemson, and as a final nonetheless. The topic lent itself to writing in an article style based on my previous experience writing for two different newspapers, about why college essays just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading them (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). — Rebecca Schuman

Instead of just killing essays off for oral exams like she says, to help the idea of students “bullshitting” essays, I think we just need to throw them online in some well-read forums where they can make them look fancy. Where they can put funny videos and pictures in. And where they can learn, trial-by-fire style, that bullshit doesn’t fly in a business environment.

Pictured: Someone trying to understand the point of criticism. (Source: Wikimedia)

Students aren’t going to be able to learn about how to write for a large group of people unless they’re already writing for a large group of people. Dissertations are great and all, but unless I’m getting practical experience where I might actually apply my skills to the real world, there’s no reason for me to explain the Syrian diaspora with regards to queer theory if it’s not in an environment where I can get real-world criticism and dialogue on my specific ideas and thoughts. The whole point of a college essay is to persuade people to believe what you’re saying, so why are we just trying to persuade someone who’s grading us? At that point, we’re just persuading someone to give us a good grade. And that’s just not good enough in a business environment, where more than a diploma and a pat on the back rides on my work.

So put essays online, like on Medium here, where you’ll have random people able to make comments on your work. And call out where you’ve just made stuff up, or critique your specific word choice, or just give you a nice remark that they agree on something you said. If there’s enough interest, maybe a forum-based website for English professors to have their students read others’ work and get their own work criticized would be sufficient. Putting your work onto the Internet — where everything basically lives forever — can even let potential employers know how well you’re able to write and persuade others, meaning they can help buff the already struggling resumé of us English majors.

Let’s make the English degree publicly-sourced. Let’s make college essays more than just a completion grade again.